As baseball’s GM meetings end, Theo Epstein’s work is just beginning

Chicago Tribune Sports 3 weeks ago

Baseball executives erased their whiteboards, closed their spreadsheets, stuffed their laptops into carry-on bags and began a mass exodus from the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa on Thursday morning.

The general managers meetings took place at the same glitzy resort they were held three years earlier, when they overlapped with the day Donald Trump was elected president. The 2019 meetings concluded Thursday on Day 2 of public hearings in the impeachment inquiry of the president.

Baseball symmetry had merged with real-world symmetry during this hot stove league ritual, one that never seems to change, even as the executives get younger and the writers covering them get older.

It was hard to ignore the world of change since those ’16 meetings. Cubs President Theo Epstein was still on a cloud coming off his post-World Series bender, but he voiced displeasure with pitcher Jake Arrieta for trolling Hillary Clinton supporters on Twitter the morning after the election, which Epstein said he was “processing” only hours after the results were in.

“I’m still processing that too," Epstein said of Arrieta’s tweet. “I believe in the first amendment, but I also believe we should be mindful of how other people feel.”

Arrieta is long gone, as are many others from the 2016 champs, including manager Joe Maddon and all but 10 players. It’s a different world now, and Epstein was much more serious and subdued this time around as he avoided revealing anything of substance about the changes in store for 2020, including budgetary concerns after the Cubs exceeded the luxury-tax threshold this year.

At the end of a 23-minute briefing Wednesday, Epstein asked reporters if he was “sufficiently boring” for them. Some nodded and walked away.

Like most executives here, Epstein spent the last four days game-planning the 2020 season, targeting free agents of interest and discussing potential trades with his peers.

Last year the Cubs let it be known they’d be relatively inactive in the offseason because of an already bloated payroll after the Yu Darvish signing in the spring of 2018. But this time they’re staying mum. It’s certainly their prerogative, even if it frustrates fans interested in the plan for the first year of the David Ross era.

Closing in on his 46th birthday, Epstein is now a seasoned veteran instead of the upstart hotshot from Yale who took over the reins of the Red Sox 17 years ago at age 28, the youngest GM in major-league history. He wasn’t the first baseball executive with an Ivy League background, but his success certainly helped convince owners around baseball to be comfortable choosing younger, highly educated candidates to run their organizations rather than middle-aged men with a playing or scouting background.

That trend continues to grow exponentially, though the 2019 World Series champion Nationals are run by Mike Rizzo, a graduate of Chicago’s Saint Xavier University. The Nationals have an analytics department, like every other team, but Rizzo still stresses old-school scouting. That’s why many here were so happy about the Nats’ Series win over the Astros, whose focus on analytics over eyeballs resulted in severe scouting department cuts, which some fear will lead to the end of traditional scouting.

Epstein still values his scouts, but the Cubs’ inability to draft and develop pitchers during his first eight years in Chicago has been well-documented. It’s Epstein’s Achilles heel, the one blight on an otherwise brilliantly executed teardown and rebuild that other organizations now emulate.

The hiring of Dan Kantrovitz as vice president of scouting is a move Epstein believes will fix the problem. A former scouting director for the Cardinals, Kantrovitz left a comfortable position as the A’s assistant GM to be part of Epstein’s revamped front office and get back to what Epstein called his true “passion.”

“He really fits the exact profile we’re looking for,” Epstein said. “He can scout. He goes out and sees 200 players a year when he’s running the draft. He can really relate very well to scouts, and he’s also got experience building advanced analytical models and combining both those worlds in a really effective manner. So it fills a big void for us and I look forward to working with him for years to come.”

While Epstein declined to discuss his own future this week, his contract is up after 2021. Based solely on past comments he has made, there has been speculation he’ll be looking for a new challenge after a Hall of Fame career that includes 10 years in Chicago.

General manager Jed Hoyer, whose contract aligns with Epstein’s, would be the obvious replacement if Epstein leaves. Who would replace Hoyer? Former assistant general manager Scott Harris seemingly was being groomed as a potential Cubs GM, but left Sunday to take that job with the Giants.

With his experience as an assistant general manager, Kantrovitz could be a possible successor to Hoyer if this scenario plays out. It’s too early to say what will happen, but it’s something to watch as the clock ticks down toward 2021.

While praising Kantrovitz, Epstein pointed to the Cubs having more turnover in player development than any other department.

“It’s not always easy to do, and it’s something we’ve struggled with,” he admitted.

The recruitment of Kantrovitz, who is seen as a perfect fit for blending traditional old-school scouting methods with analytics, was seen as a priority for Epstein. If the Cubs are going to remake their world, they’re simply going to have to be able to draft and develop homegrown pitching, as the Cardinals have done so well over the years.

The onus is on Epstein to get things right.

But at least the motivation to succeed is one quality in Epstein that has never changed.

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